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A Mystik Dan Preakness Win Would End a Drought

In the May 18 Preakness Stakes (G1) Mystik Dan  will try to become the first horse to win at least two United States classics since 2018, an accomplishment that would figure to put added excitement back into the Triple Crown in what has arguably been the oddest stretch in the series’ history.

Since Justify   cut through the fog and splashed home a half-length in front of Bravazo   to win the 2018 edition of the Preakness Stakes (G1), on his way to the 13th sweep of the Triple Crown, the series has endured stewards’ demotions for interference, a disqualification following a failed post-race test, a ban of the series’ most successful trainer, scratches of champion horses, and Derby-winning connections choosing to not pursue the crown.

Not to mention that whole worldwide pandemic issue.

Which brings us to 2024 and some amount of normalcy: Derby winner Mystik Dan is the 8-5 morning-line favorite to win the Preakness and become the first horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown since Justify. Granted, it took the aforementioned banned trainer, Bob Baffert, scratching the initial morning-line favorite for the Preakness for Mystik Dan to assume the favorite’s role. But with no further changes on race day, this Preakness storyline will be similar to many others: a Derby winner trying to replicate his form two weeks after the Run for the Roses.

Near-Historic Drought

When Justify crossed the wire 1 3/4 lengths ahead of his closest rival in the 2018 Belmont Stakes (G1), he became the second horse to sweep the Triple Crown in three years—following American Pharoah   in 2015. Granted, some may begin their timeline of Triple Crown weirdness in 2018 because of a later scandal over Justify’s Santa Anita Derby (G1) win, which marked the only race in which he earned Derby-qualifying points. 

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Justify; Mike Smith; Preakness Stakes; G1; Pimlico Race Course; May 19; 2018
Photo: Dave W. Harmon

Mike Smith celebrates onboard Justify after winning the 2018 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course

Still, on the day he won the 2018 Belmont it set off only celebration and thoughts of the possibility of another group of three Triple Crown winners, just as the sport delivered in the 1970s with Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. 

From where we are today those heady times of 2018 seem a lot longer than six years ago. Can Mystik Dan deliver a victory Saturday in Baltimore and set off the sport’s best storyline? His trainer, Kenny McPeek, is looking forward to finding out.

“This is what you want. You want this atmosphere,” McPeek told BloodHorse this week. “You want people here. You wanted them connected to it all and seeing all of it. I’m glad we’re back to normal.”

It’s safe to say McPeek isn’t the only one embracing normal.

When Arcangelo   closed out last year’s Triple Crown with his victory in the Belmont, it completed a five-year stretch in which no horse has won more than one classic. It’s the longest stretch of different winners of the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont since a six-year span from 1924-29 ended with Gallant Fox’s Triple Crown in 1930. 

Beyond that, this current stretch of no Derby winner following with a Preakness score is the longest since a seven-year dearth from 1990-96 before Silver Charm won the first two legs of the 1997 Triple Crown.

Strange Years

Beyond the waiting for something special on the track, the circumstances surrounding this current drought have been especially taxing for fans of the sport.

When 2019 Florida Derby (G1) winner Maximum Security   splashed home for what appeared to be a clear victory as the second-choice in that year’s Derby, connections and fans allowed themselves to dream of what could happen in the weeks ahead. Those dreams would last for about 20 minutes before stewards disqualified Maximum Security from victory and placed him 17th for interference near the five-sixteenths pole—the first horse in Derby history to be demoted from victory for interference during the race.

Country House  , a 65-1 shot who would be placed first in the Derby, would not start in the Preakness. In fact, he would not start again—closing out a career in which a maiden race victory would be the only race in which he crossed the wire first. 

Maximum Security would not race in the final two legs of the Triple Crown either. Beyond that, his trainer, Jason Servis, would be arrested some 10 months after the Derby and eventually convicted in federal court on charges related to doping horses. He would be sentenced to four years in prison. Evidence in the case suggested Maximum Security was among Servis’ doped horses.

In 2020 it would be COVID-19 that would play havoc with the Triple Crown as the Derby was moved to the first Saturday in September. The Belmont, shortened to 1 1/8 miles, would be contested in June and won by New York-bred Tiz the Law  . Then in a near-empty Churchill Downs that September, Bob Baffert-trained Authentic   would win the Derby after holding off Tiz the Law’s stretch rally. Filly Swiss Skydiver , trained by McPeek, would then win the Preakness the following month, edging Authentic.

While those races provided needed thrills for an audience largely watching from home, the changed race order, dates, and distances—along with the lack of massive on-track crowds and the energy they provide—made for a racing year (and year overall) most everyone would rather forget.

With some crowd restrictions in place but the traditional Triple Crown dates back in place in 2021, Baffert would send out Medina Spirit to what appeared to be a front-running score in the Derby that would give the trainer a record seventh win in the classic. But eight days later Baffert would announce that the Kentucky stewards informed him Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone, which is allowed as a medication but not permitted in a horse’s system on race day. 

That stewards’ decision to disqualify Medina Spirit would hold up through years of regulatory appeals that would follow. An appeal filed in a Kentucky circuit court would be dismissed.

On the track, Mandaloun   would inherit the 2021 Derby victory but with the DQ announcement coming eight days after the race and that appeal of the stewards’ decision, it would be years before Mandaloun’s win would be official. He would skip the Preakness and the Belmont as well and return in the summer, putting together a three-race win streak that included a score in the Haskell Stakes (G1).

Baffert would be suspended three months by the stewards but beyond that regulatory suspension, he also would face a year’s suspension from the New York Racing Association as well as a Churchill Downs Inc. suspension that continues today. In the years since, some owners have transferred some classic hopefuls away from Baffert in the spring to qualify for the Derby but those horses did not find the winner’s circle at Churchill. This year Baffert owners stuck with him through the qualifying races, with horses such as Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Muth  missing the Run for the Roses.

In 2022 Rich Strike  would only get into the Derby after making the race off the also-eligible list but he would take full advantage of the opportunity, surging past Epicenter   in the Churchill stretch to deliver an 80-1 shocker. While the upset win garnered a lot of attention for the race and the winner, his connections decided a two-week turnaround was not in his wheelhouse. They skipped the Preakness, where Epicenter would again finish second. 

Rich Strike would not win a race after the Derby. He finished sixth in the Belmont and ran solidly to finish fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). In the summer Epicenter won the Travers Stakes (G1) on his way to champion 3-year-old honors.

Last year racing did make it to this same point when Mage   won the Derby and was entered in the Preakness Stakes. The son of Good Magic   put in a nice effort in the Preakness to secure a third-place finish in the race won by National Treasure, who skipped the Derby.

National Treasure with John Velazquez wins the Preakness (G1) at Pimlico, Baltimore, MD, on May 20, 2023.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

National Treasure (inside) wins the 2023 Preakness Stakes

That said, there were a number of high-profile scratches Derby week of 2023, topped by champion 2-year-old male Forte  , that distracted from the race. In the race before the Derby, Forte won the Florida Derby, finishing one length ahead of Mage.

Another Try

This year, after a Derby in which Muth was ineligible, he was entered in the Preakness where he would be the 8-5 morning-line favorite before being scratched May 15 by Baffert, who said the horse spiked a fever. Following the scratch, a new morning-line was produced May 16 listing Mystik Dan as the 8-5 favorite with Imagination , the Baffert-trained runner-up from the Santa Anita Derby (G1) as the 3-1 second-choice.

Yes, in 2024 there again has been some off-track intrigue impacting this year’s series, but when the 3-year-olds break from the gate Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, Mystik Dan will have the opportunity to be the first dual classic winner since 2018—the most familiar of Preakness storylines.

In the COVID year of 2020, McPeek sent out filly Swiss Skydiver to an upset of Baffert-trained Authentic to close out the rearranged series that year. This season the two trainers are scheduled to send out the Preakness’ top two wagering choices while six others will take their shot in the 1 3/16-mile race.

McPeek is fully aware of the challenge of facing top horses and the challenge presented by the series of races.

“I think that there are Thoroughbreds that are plenty capable of running back in two weeks and three weeks. And there’s horses all across America that run back in two and three weeks,” McPeek said. “This is what makes the Triple Crown difficult. The Preakness—the timing and everything—obviously, it’s getting a lot of scrutiny. It takes an unbelievable horse to do it.”

Entries: Preakness S. (G1)

Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 18, 2024, Race 13

  • Grade I
  • 1 3/16m
  • Dirt
  • $2,000,000
  • 3 yo
  • 7:01 PM (local)

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